On a few occasions since we’ve been doing this blog (see here, here, and here) I’ve attempted to read Tocqueville against the interpretation of his work that has long been popular on the American and French right since the Cold War. If there’s one passage in Democracy in America that has been in the back of my mind when doing so, it’s the chapter entitled “How Aristocracy Could Emerge from Industry” (II.2.20, Comment l’aristocratie pourrait sortir de l’industrie). Aside from his long chapter on race and slavery in the first volume, this is Tocqueville’s most direct confrontation with the question of economic inequality in America. For this reason, it has been high on my list for our series of close-readings.
In order to understand what Tocqueville means when he writes of a possible return of aristocratic conditions in America’s emerging industrial society, it’s worth looking at the two chapters directly proceeding II.2.20. In the United States, Tocqueville begins in II.2.18, almost everybody works for a living (and if not, they are the children of people who worked for a living), and unlike in the aristocratic countries of Europe, people don’t distinguish between “nobler” forms of work—which aristocrats might see fit to engage in—and mere money-making. Under the conditions of the American democracy of the 1830s, even very wealthy people (or rather, very wealthy men) did not feel it was beneath them to seek employment. Nor did they limit themselves to politics or “culturally elitist” fields like scholarship and the arts.
As Tocqueville saw it, almost everybody in America was looking to make a profit. II.2.19 contains a few of his most prescient observations about the role of money in American culture—in just a few lines, he simultaneously predicted Jay Gatsby, Donald Trump, Tony Soprano, and Walter White: “a man, however opulent we may suppose he is, is almost always dissatisfied with his fortune.” As a result, Tocqueville believes, “nearly all the tastes and habits born from [American] equality naturally drive men towards commerce and industry.” The ambitious profit-seeking American Tocqueville describes was unlikely to seek his fortune in agriculture, which is suited either for a few ultra-rich plantation owners or relatively poor farmers content with subsistence. Commerce and industry were not only where the real money was to be made, but also where a rich person could satisfy his urges. Tocqueville writes that since rich people were inherently not drawn toward politics or other “noble” occupations, they remained at work in commerce in industry not only to make more money, but also simply to avoid the boredom of a life of leisure (as a recent New York Times article put it, rich people work in order to avoid “facing the nature of existence”). This constant occupation with the daily affairs of the market and the factory, along with the lack of time for and interest in creating high culture, meant for Tocqueville that the rich in America was unlikely to coalesce as a class, sharing unified attitudes, tastes, and habits.
Chapters II.2.18 and II.2.19 describe American society as Tocqueville saw it in the 1830s. In contrast, II.2.20 imagines how industry and commerce might lead to a radical social transformation. Tocqueville focuses on two major features driving the productivity of early industry: the division of labor into increasingly narrow tasks, and the economies of scale. He echoes Adam Smith’s worry that the division of labor would lead to diminished intellectual and political capacities for the working class. A man who spent decades of his life putting heads on pins would not only become less intelligent, but also less autonomous: “he no longer belongs to himself, but to the profession he has chosen.” At the same time, those in control of a growing industrial sector would learn to engage with production on a far more massive scale. Even if the rich continued to spurn high culture, and if basic literacy remained as widespread as Tocqueville claimed it was in earlier chapters, he saw the rise of industry as the potential cause of a stark social inequality:
[The manager] looks increasingly like the administrator of a vast empire, [the worker] like a brute…. They are connected only like the two extreme ends of a long chain, each occupying a place that is made for him, and which he cannot escape.
For Tocqueville, the social relations created by industrial production was the very definition of aristocracy. Though the inequality he imagined was more spiritual than material (he is less preoccupied by the mere inequality of wealth, though he does not ignore it), it is a radical challenge to the democratic social order he has sketched throughout Democracy in America. What’s more, it is a threat to democracy that emerges from democracy itself. If not quite Marx’s prediction of capitalism digging its own grave, Tocqueville’s prediction is perhaps an anticipation of the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” described by the twentieth-century observer of industrial society, Daniel Bell.
There is a possible interpretation of II.2.20 that is consistent with the triumphalist conservative-liberal post-Cold War Tocqueville. As he writes, this new aristocracy is not like that of Old Europe. Even if few poor people might rise to the top, nothing stops formally them from doing so, and as Tocqueville writes, plenty of rich people later fall back out of the new aristocracy. What’s more, there was nothing of the old personal subservience of the poor to members of the aristocracy, a feature which led Tocqueville to characterize it as a “restrained” aristocracy, less dangerous than its predecessors. Tocqueville’s democratic aristocracy might in this sense simply be what Americans today prefer to call “meritocracy” (a term initially coined in a satire describing a neo-aristocratic society). In other words, this is an aristocracy where the social inequalities are justified because they are produced under the democratic condition of “equality of opportunity.”
Tocqueville himself, though, was under no illusions about the danger of this new aristocracy if one is committed to democracy—as he writes, nothing should be more concerning to the democratic legislator. In one of his less prescient moments, one that also reveals some of his weaknesses as a political economist, Tocqueville did not believe rich people in a democracy would be drawn to seek political power. He nonetheless understood what would be at stake if this prediction proved false. An aristocracy that emerges from industry is subservient to it, and by this token is incapable of governing in the fullest democratic sense of the term. So while Tocqueville was relatively optimistic that this aristocracy was unlikely to pose a serious threat to democratic politics, he had an intuition for what might happen in a situation like our own. As scholars like Thomas Piketty have shown, we are currently on track to reach levels of global inequality—transmitted through inherited wealth—not seen since the 19th-century Belle Époque. This accumulation of inequality has coincided with decades of neoliberal governance that has done much to “destroy the demos,” as Wendy Brown has put it. This may not be the world order Tocqueville foresaw, but it is certainly not one he would celebrate.
Photo credit: VasenkaPhotography via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)